All is True, 2018.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Kathryn Wilder, Lydia Wilson, Alex Macqueen, Jack Colgrave Hirst and Ian McKellen.
When the Globe Theatre burns down during a performance, William Shakespeare vows to stop writing and returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon in order to spend time with his wife and children.
Ben Elton loves Sheakespeare. His recent and very underrated BBC sitcom Upstart Crow casts David Mitchell as the Bard and deals in wry anachronism, such as frequently referring to Shakespeare’s coach rides in terms more akin to motorway and rail travel. He’s on more earnest and traditional form as the screenwriter behind All is True, which recounts the final few years of the playwright’s life, after the burning down of the Globe brings him back to Stratford-upon-Avon and his family.
On both sides of the camera is Kenneth Branagh – a veteran of Shakespeare’s work on both stage and screen. He directed the film almost in secret, with almost no pre-publicity, in between his blockbuster work. It’s surprising he got away with it really given the size of the preposterous prosthetic schnozzle he’s sporting, which was presumably visible from space for the majority of the production. Perhaps emboldened by the success of Poirot’s moustache in Murder on the Orient Express, it seems he’s set to allow a different facial feature to upstage him in each of his movies.
When we meet him, Branagh’s Shakespeare has abandoned his writing career in the wake of the Globe disaster and returned home to set up a garden. He claims to have “lived so long in imaginary worlds I’ve lost sight of what’s true” and is keen to right the wrongs of his lengthy absence from the family home, especially after the passing of his 11-year-old son Hamnet more than 15 years previously. Unfortunately, for his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and his daughters, it’s too little too late, with Dench murmuring dismissively that he is like “a guest” to them at this point.
This is a joyously overwrought and theatrical movie, which finds its best moments when it deals in ripe, gently bawdy dialogue. It’s no coincidence that the film’s standout scene is the extended cameo for Ian McKellen as the flamboyant Earl of Southampton – believed to have been the inspiration for the Fair Youth referred to in many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Given how often those outside of Shakespeare’s immediate family talk about how amazing he is, it’s a delight to see McKellen take him down a couple of pegs.
And that’s when All is True works best. As a serious biography of Shakespeare’s final years, it falls a little flat and seems to lean towards scandal rather than emotional depth. However, the sense of tabloid sensationalism does allow for some exquisite silliness, that Branagh sells with all of the unbridled joy you’d expect from someone who by now has paid homage to the playwright at every major point along the silly-to-serious spectrum. He gets to deliver some withering Tudor putdowns as well, including a sweary dressing down of The Inbetweeners star Alex Macqueen’s pompous MP.
Branagh’s direction does provide dramatic highlights, with one scene elegantly staged so that Dench is in the foreground of the frame but pushed to one side – present, but ignored – while Branagh’s Shakespeare bellows with rage in the centre of the frame, but far from the camera – dominant, but distant. It’s a neat signal to the audience that this family dynamic has been warped to breaking point by a man whose reaction to grief was not to rush home to be with those closest to him, but to write some of his most celebrated comedies.
Despite the all-encompassing presence of Branagh’s Bard and his humongous hooter, it’s actually Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare who emerges from the film with a handful of stolen scenes under her arm. She’s terrific as a woman who’s unsure of her place in the world, but certain that her current situation is not what should await her. That indecision is palpable in Wilder’s performance, starting from a similar state of meek resignation to Dench’s subdued Anne, but growing into a resentment of her father that feeds into some of the unexpected third act revelations. It’s a great performance from Wilder, who has appeared in several of Branagh’s stage productions of Shakespeare, as well as in a small role in Murder on the Orient Express.
Arguably, All is True might have been more interesting had it focused on Judith and her sister, rather than spending so much time raking over the well-trodden ground of Shakespeare’s life. As gently entertaining as the movie is, there’s a definite sense of ‘been there, done that’ to its storytelling and characterisation. But for a few intriguing departures from accepted historical record, this is pretty much Stratford’s most famous son exactly as you’ve seen him before – albeit with a bigger nose.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.